Authorities are now backing what some kin of the triple-homicide victims thought all along – that the killer had picked the Groene family at random for his crimes.
Sheriff Rocky Watson said he thinks the three slayings and abduction of two children – one of whom is now believed dead – from the home east of Coeur d’Alene was planned by a stranger.
“It was not a spontaneous act,” he said; however, “I think they were randomly selected.”
That conclusion brought some relief to Steve McKenzie, brother of victim Mark McKenzie.
“At first they (detectives) believed it was somebody they all knew,” Steve McKenzie said. “Now, all sides of the family, everybody involved, can really grieve together and not be suspicious of who this person is.”
Joseph Edward Duncan III, 42, is in the Kootenai County Jail on two counts of first-degree kidnapping charges in the May 16 disappearance of 8-year-old Shasta and 9-year-old Dylan Groene. He’s the prime suspect in the three killings, too.
Brenda Groene, 40, Mark McKenzie, 37, and 13-year-old Slade Groene were all discovered bound and bludgeoned to death in their home on May 16. McKenzie was Brenda Groene’s live-in boyfriend and a father figure to the children.
Shasta and Dylan were missing from the bloody scene. A friend of the children told police she talked to them on the phone at 9:45 p.m. the night before.
Shasta was found alive last Saturday at the Coeur d’Alene Denny’s restaurant with Duncan, a level 3 sex offender from Fargo, N.D. Shasta was recognized by early-morning customers and the restaurant staff.
Three days later, the Kootenai County Sheriff’s office announced that human remains, believed to be Dylan’s, were found in a remote, mountainous location southwest of St. Regis, Mont.
Shasta told a detective that she was sleeping in the bedroom she shared with Dylan when her mother woke her and took her to the living room, where Duncan was waiting. The entire family was bound, and Duncan – who acted alone – carried Dylan and Shasta to a white pickup parked at the house, according to court records.
Duncan then drove the pickup to a neighbor’s barn a short distance away, and transferred the children into the stolen 2005 red Jeep Cherokee, records say.
From there, investigators are trying to piece together the movements of Duncan and the two children, who spent about six weeks in at least two remote campsites in the mountains near St. Regis, lead investigator Sgt. Brad Maskell told the court earlier this week.
Shasta told a detective that she and Dylan were sexually molested in the weeks they were with Duncan, Maskell testified.
Shasta was released Thursday from Kootenai Medical Center, where she’s been since her discovery, and is in the custody of her father, Steve Groene.
“What a courageous little fighter to go through so much and to still be able to smile and be happy to see people,” said Steve McKenzie, who visited Shasta at KMC.
All along, Steve McKenzie suspected that his brother’s unofficial family was targeted by a stranger driving along Interstate 90, from which the white cinderblock home on East Frontage Road is easily visible.
“I believe he drove by on the freeway and saw the kids walking down the road,” he said. “They played outside a lot. They rode their bikes on the street, on the Frontage Road.
“They’d stand out there and pump their arms up and down and make the semis honk.”
Jesse Groene, Shasta and Dylan’s 18-year-old brother, shares that theory.
In an interview Wednesday, Jesse Groene said strangers would sometimes stop by the house – especially if their cars broke down on the freeway – because “it was the first house they’d come to.”
“My mom is – was – a really nice lady. I remember her inviting someone in to sit down to use the phone. I think she made some tea,” he recalled. “It’s very possible he (Duncan) might have been let in. I don’t know.”
During Jesse Groene’s sentencing on burglary and injury to jail charges June 28, he told the judge that he was determined to quit using drugs and change his ways, because, he said, “I don’t know if I’m right for sure, but I think it (the slayings) might have something to do with drugs.”
It was just one of several theories to explain the deaths and children’s abduction, which included speculation involving drug gangs, the Mexican mafia, motorcycle gangs and more. The various theories and possibilities were multiplied by a number of people associated with the victims who had their own run-ins with the law, and the presence of drugs in Mark McKenzie and Brenda Groene’s bodies at the time of their death.
“Everybody painted this picture of a crazy drug scene,” Steve McKenzie said. “It was never that way. It was a place you would bring your kids and just let them have fun, doing country kinds of stuff, catch snakes and frogs. The only thing you didn’t feel safe about was there was a creek.”
All along, Watson had trouble making sense of the crime.
“When you walk into that type of violent crime scene, those things are usually driven by sex, money or drugs, and nothing fit,” he said. “This incident is going to rewrite a chapter in profiling. It doesn’t fit what we’re used to.
“I’ve not seen anything and not read anything like this.”
Duncan has asserted his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and has a preliminary hearing scheduled for July 19. At that time, his public defender plans to make an argument to “reduce the bond.” Judge Scott Wayman earlier this week ordered Duncan held without bond.
Mark McKenzie’s family was able to spread his ashes in the woods Sunday with the comfort of knowing that Shasta had been found and the suspected killer is behind bars, Steve McKenzie said.
“We were living in a state of terror,” he said. “This is a relief this guy is off the street.”